Help Myanmar Fight Pandemic and You Help Yourselves, Expert Tells Asean

In this July 14, 2021, file photo, people wearing face masks wait as caskets with bodies are queued outside a crematorium at the Yay Way cemetery in Yangon, Myanmar. (AP Photo, File)

Myanmar could turn into the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic unless neighboring countries and international organizations adopt pragmatic strategies to inoculate high-risk groups of people to stop the spread of variants, regional experts are warning.

Dr. Emma Leslie, executive director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, is calling for a pragmatic and coordinated approach, as Myanmar, which is being severely hit by the outbreak, urgently needs help. More than 1,000 people in Myanmar die each day and 37 percent of 15,000 daily tests are producing positive results.

She said assistance must start immediately and politics must be left out of it.

“We have to think of Myanmar as a patchwork quilt, with each patch being handled differently. There’s not going to be one simple unified panacea for this,” Leslie said.

Leslie was speaking at a Zoom briefing on the COVID-19 situation in Myanmar organized by the Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 national media outlets in 20 Asian countries. Among those joining the panel were former Thai ambassador Kobsak Chutikul and Dr. Zin Mar Aung, foreign minister of the National Unity Government (NUG).

The vaccine roll-outs should be pragmatic and implemented urgently. Assistance could go in through many parts of the country, she said, citing the so-called “vaccine diplomacy” from China and the direct delivery of one million vaccine doses to the Northernmost Kachin state. Alternatively, any international organizations could go in along the border areas that are not controlled by Myanmar’s military.

You don’t have to choose sides, just find a strategic partner on the field and get the vaccine rolled out,” said Leslie.

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The United Nations Security Council has been warned that half of Myanmar is likely to be infected in two weeks. “We are not clear on the statistics for the Deltavariant. At this stage, even with the limited information we have, we are facing a huge humanitarian crisis. We need to contain it quickly so it doesn’t become a massive regional crisis,” said Leslie.

Kobsak said the gravity of the situation and the need for urgent practical action should be underlined during the ASEAN meeting and discussions with dialogue partners this week. [The briefing coincided with the first day of the virtual ASEAN Foreign Minister’s meeting on August 1.].

“The situation percolating in Myanmar is like a tsunami coming to overtake the ASEAN region. We have to realize that Myanmar shares a border with India and China, as well as Thailand and half of the world’s population, could be affected if the infections spillover. By helping them, we help ourselves.”

Daw Zin Mar Aung of NUG quoted health experts who predict that the coronavirus outbreak in Myanmar has not yet reached its peak and that “the worst is yet to come”.

“We’re trying ways to reach out to people and get (international) organizations entering areas where the military is not in control. But we’re not ready to talk to the military,” she said.

Leslie stressed that neighboring countries had a major role to play and said that Thailand should be a leader. One idea is to vaccinate everyone in a buffer zone along the Thai-Myanmar border. “Thailand has the capacity and ability to mobilize [vaccination]. But, it needs to be handled dedicatedly and sensitively — Thai people must also be given the opportunity to be vaccinated, she said.

She said that the Thai Red Cross could be part of the solution as it had the capacity to mobilize vaccine delivery to border regions. “Bangladesh and India could use the same models along their borders.”

Mar Aung said that Myanmar’s public health system, which was able to handle the first and second waves of COVID-19, had collapsed totally with the coming of variants. The crisis has been compounded by ongoing clashes between military and protestors and the fact that many medical personnel have been jailed.

Judging from the current situation, Korbsak was firm: We have to act immediately, assistance has to go into Myanmar, and everyone should see they have a vested interest in this.”

by Veena Thoopkrajae


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